Five habits of the heart cause untold destruction and self-destruction.
Stephen Pinker’s wonderfully stimulating book The better angels of our nature calls them our ‘inner demons’:
‘A small number of quirks in our cognitive and emotional makeup give rise to a substantial proportion of avoidable human misery.’ 1. Humanists see them as products of evolution; Christians, as aspects of fallenness.
Below I have compared these Five Deadly Quirks with the Beatitudes, as taught by Christ. It’s interesting how directly Jesus addresses them; how prevalent they are; and how vital to fight them.
I used to work as an editor on a Christian magazine and I remember writing this:
On my desk I have words cemented together in monster monologues like communist-era apartment blocks, flat and impenetrable, not for humans. I have ugly words (maximised) and phrases that should never have been born (first and foremost) crawling out of my piled-up papers like cockroaches.
I never seem to meet the subtle, the pert, the playful, the resonant-with-life words. (Lunch. Hug. Wry. Fragrant. Squidgy.)Instead, alarmingly, the banal presses in, all around. “To me,” writes one earnest contributor, “Life is a journey.” Perhaps this will be helpful to your readers.
The Christian faith triggers a number of reactions among which are:
‘Not really sure’
‘Not for me’
‘I’d rather put my head in a food mixer.’
Some of this might be blamed, rightly or wrongly, on genuinely irritating habits of Christians such as:
Believing conspiracy theories
The Crusades, The Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials
Invading my personal space
Always wanting me to go on courses
I do believe, however, that some irritating habits I see in some of my fellow Christians are worth nurturing. Here are three. If only I could:
Grace. Refusing to speak ill of people. Introducing a positive note in the office just when morale is at its most deliciously dismal. Not bearing grudges or engaging in satisfying acts of minor malice or revenge. Doing the coffee cups. Not assassinating people behind their backs. Buying the biscuits.
Certainty. ‘I have become one of those annoying people who is sure God loves him. Goodness and mercy will follow me all my days. God will not stop doing good to me. My death will see my longings fulfilled, my tears wiped away and possibly my nose blown. I know I deserve none of this and I agree you are as good a person as me. Sorry if you find that irritating in some way.’
A light touch. Aw, I wish I had this.And I wish the millions of people banging away on keyboards in their bedrooms had this. God save us from point-by-point refutations.
Satire should, like a polished razor keen
Wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen
(Mary Wortley Montague, quoted in Stephen Pinker p 766.)
A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.
Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.
Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.
We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:
People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
Pottering in the garden
Being happily part of a family
People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
Eating ‘al desko’
Looking at a screen into the small hours
Death by Powerpoint
‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?
For example: we have a much less chance of being caught in a vendetta or blood feud than if we were all hunter-gatherers 5000 years ago. Crucifixion, cannibalism, the rack and the whip, these days, are deployed only in the world’s darkest holes, not in its finest civilisations. These days–in Europe–we worry about battery hens or foxhunting or whether a cow died well; in the past we worried about slave trading or state executions.
We still have evil and violence in the world but, per capita, per life, there is much less of it.
Wars, of course, are more problematic but even here the facts are surprising. No war has killed more than World War II, true, but World War I only ranks fifth or sixth in the list, out-cataclysmed by three Chinese wars and the Mongol conquests. If you adjust for world population at the time, neither of the 2oth century’s showpieces make the top ten.
So, violence has declined.
Pinker has five general reasons:
‘Leviathan’: by this he means, following Thomas Hobbes, government and the power of the state. If they punish the person who robs me, I don’t have to. And if they police the streets, it’s possible fewer people will want to rob me in the first place. Anarchy is bad for us. Government, though it brings its own problems, is preferred.
‘Gentle commerce’: the more we trade, the less we fight.
Feminization: It does tend to be the chaps who do the violence; as women gain more influence, violence declines.2
‘The expanding circle’. The more we mix, and appreciate each other, and put ourselves in each other’s shoes, the less likely we are to fight. Maybe education works, too. Sounds soppy, but, hey.
‘The escalator of reason.’ This is about applying logic to problems rather than pride or prejudice.
I find this powerful stuff. Take your favourite dysfunctional country, and apply this lot, and things will get better. That is what is happening around the world, and why we now have–for example–the EU rather than the 100 years’ war.
But he missed the chilli out of the curry
I find these arguments necessary and enlightening, but not sufficient. On my reading Steven Pinker is a wonderful scholar but he keeps dodging Jesus. Like many who boast the title ‘humanist’, he is happy talking about the Old Testament, about crusades, inquisitions, and witch-burning, but he refuses to look Christ–the not-retaliating, against the death penalty, blessed-are-the-peacemakers Christ–in the face. He underplays the role of radical Christians in (for example) fighting slavery, inventing the whole idea of the NGO and being decisive in civil society, also known as being salt and light.
(This might not be his fault. If he is a behavioural psychologist he is destined to be shaped by his environment and anyone who spends as much time as he does with social scientists is bound to lose his grip in certain areas.)
It matters, though, even in a book so brilliant as his. Take drug addiction in the UK. ‘Leviathan’ gets druggies their own apartments, on methodone rather than heroin, with a care worker, using clean needles and with good free healthcare. It’s harm reduction and it’s loads better than nothing.
But I could dig up stories about hundreds of former addicts who are off drugs entirely, and embedded securely in loving networks of family, community and work. And they would attribute the change to Christ. Government ministers have visited centres in the UK and seen this and asked, ‘couldn’t you do it without the religious stuff?’. The answer, of course, is ‘feel free’. But when it comes to rescuing druggies, fishing the inebriated out of ditches, running day care for the elderly, the humanists honestly seem a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps his curry is lacking a dash of chilli.
Evangelists, and apostolic, entrepreneurial Christian types generally, seem to be the unsettling opposite of ‘slow mission.’ They dash about. The apostle Paul seemed always to be in a hurry.
This can make the rest of us feel uneasy. These people are out evangelizing the world while we are digging allotments, playing games, visiting Aunts or watching cricket. Do they show up us slow mission types as wicked, lazy servants?
Here’s why that isn’t—or at least might not be—the case.
Much of what is achieved in haste seems either to evaporate altogether or need re-doing more slowly.
In my experience, some evangelists cut corners. They might be slapdash with relationships, or with money, or with the speed limits. Their evangelistic zeal is a kind of coverall to hide their character defects.
God in any case has his ways of slowing evangelists down. Paul kept being put in jail, and arguably did his best work there, writing half the New Testament.
Slow mission is not about laziness. When you follow your love and your passion, you work harder and for longer than when you work at anything else. Duty can take you a long way, but devotion will take you further.
Evangelists’ love and passion is in winning people. That’s their thing and their devotion. Wonderful.But it shouldn’t–should it?– be foisted on the rest of us as if it were the final word in discipleship or obedience.
1. We all have to share the planet and be good neighbours.
2. We all agree (I think) that humans are both wonderful and ‘born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward.’ We disagree why. Is it because we are created good and fell from God (as the Christian account has it) or because our intelligence and reasoning skills sit atop a brain still programmed by (some) unhelpful routines that evolved millions of years ago? Is that even different? Either way, we have a shared space to explore celebrations and remedies.
3. We can enrich each other. I have to admit that Christians (with some notable exceptions like the Quakers and the Salvation Army) have not historically been the leading proponents of fighting for some things that are now commonly held as precious, such as gender equality. Christians tend to put up with things rather than upset them. Sometimes, radical, pioneering atheists force me to go back and ask fresh questions of the Bible. They challenge sloppy thinking. Which can only be good. Perhaps we Christians can return the favour, because I have to report that sometimes in my observation the champions of pure reason do trip on their own shoelaces, especially in the face of Christ.
4. I’d like to hear the best things that atheism has to offer; and like to offer the best things I know of Christ in return. So our debate is about our comparing our good points, more than dredging up our bad.
5. In all this, it is quite fun winding each other up. At least atheists are interested in God, which is more than I can say for most people in the West.
6. We can convert each other, which is a lot more possible in a place of peaceful dialogue than trench warfare, lobbing chosen texts at each other. And this is a good thing, a free-market in ideas.
A book wot I wrote for atheists and Christians to enjoy.
Our worklife is another area that we can think of as something to do with Kingdom of God. (As I blogged here.) So:
It’s about devotion to Christ. Work, like the rest of life, is something in the end that we do in front of an audience of One. That leads to the extra-mile contributions.
It’s now and not yet. Some stuff at work will never be put right until the end of everything. But we can make a difference today.
It’s internal and external. Our heart has to be right, not just our conduct. (The heart always spills over anyway.) It was said of the great reforming MP William Wilberforce that he kept on friendly terms even with his political enemies. The Christian faith calls us to love our neighbours, enemies, brothers, even, therefore, the awkward so-and-sos at work. We can’t just politely hate them. That’s awkward, but ultimately productive.
We come in weakness. Which implies patience, willingness to admit being wrong, persistence, gentleness. Not a doormat, but not a door-slammer either.
‘Slow mission’ is about huge ambition–all things united under Christ–and tiny steps.
I contrast it with much talk and planning about ‘goals’ and ‘strategies’ which happens in the parts of church I inhabit, and which have an appearance of spirituality, but make me sometimes feel like I am in the Christian meat-processing industry.
Here’s a summary of slow mission values, as currently figured out by me:
Devoted. Centred on Christ as Saviour and Lord. Do we say to Christ, ‘Everything I do, I do it for you.’ Do we hear Christ saying the same thing back to us?
Belonging. We sign up, take part, dive in, identify, work with others, live with the compromises. Not for us a proud independence.
Respecting vocation. Where do ‘your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger’ meet?3. Vocation is where God’s strokes of genius happen. That’s where we should focus our energies.
To do with goodness. Goodness in the world is like a tolling bell that can’t be silenced and that itself silences all arguments.
Observing seasons. ‘There’s a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.’4.The world will be OK even if we check out for a while. (Note: our families, however, won’t be.)
Into everything. We are multi-ethnic and interdependent. We like the handcrafted. We are interested in all humanity and in all that humanity is interested in. Wherever there’s truth, beauty, creativity, compassion, integrity, service, we want to be there too, investing and inventing. We don’t take to being shut out. Faith and everything mix.
Quite keen on common sense. We like to follow the evidence and stick to the facts. We like to critique opinions and prejudices. We don’t, however, argue with maths. Against our human nature, we try to listen to those we disagree with us. We’re not afraid of truth regardless of who brings it. We want to be learners rather than debaters.
Happy to write an unfinished symphony. Nothing gets completed this side of death and eternity. What we do gets undone. That’s OK. Completeness is coming in God’s sweet time. ‘Now we only see a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.’5.
Comfortable with the broken and the provisional. Happy are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for right, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the laughed-at. This also implies a discomfort with the pat, the glib, the primped, the simplistic, the triumphalistic and the schlocky.
Refusing to be miserable. The Universe continues because of God’s zest for life, despite everything, and his insouciance that it will all probably work out somehow. In sorrows, wounds and in the inexplicable, we join God in his childlike faith.